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There are problems facing our community – climate crisis, inequality, lack of affordable housing – that are so complex they require collaboration and coordination between all levels of government, community groups and the private sector. To find effective solutions, the number of partners and moving parts requires effective coordination between sectors; it requires a strategy and strategies require leadership. But whose responsibility is it to make sure this happens?

Municipalities are the level of government closest to communities. They can see the needs of their community because they interact directly every day. As such, municipalities have a responsibility to develop clear strategies and to ensure that they are advocating for and aligning themselves with policies and practices to meet the communities’ needs. Not every municipal council agrees, however, and the issue of housing is a good case study.

Recently, the Municipality of Kincardine received feedback through their Corporate Strategic Plan and Economic Development Strategy that identified housing as a significant challenge. In response they are developing a housing action plan “that will identify short-term and long-term actions aimed at increasing housing availability, both rental and ownership options, and support more diverse housing stock (duplex, semis, townhouses, apartments) in the Municipality, including more affordable options”. They are currently collecting public feedback and have clearly acknowledged that the issue “is complex and requires a dedicated commitment and resources that span over many years” and that it “will require collaboration between multiple layers of government, private and public sector organizations, developers, non-profit organizations, and the community”.

On December 13th I asked the Owen Sound City Council if they would similarly take a leadership role on this issue and direct staff to create a housing action plan for our city. The answer, in so many words, was ‘no’. I was disappointed, not necessarily with the response but with the thinking behind it.

The Deputy Mayor addressed the question, recognizing that the issue is important and explaining that Grey County has more resources to provide affordable housing than Owen Sound. He claimed that the City was therefore best to let the County deal with the housing issue while supporting that work with funding.

In response to a follow up question about potential policy options and decisions that the City specifically could use to address the issue, staff referenced the official plan and an upcoming zoning review. The Mayor further claimed that although his position is that housing is actually in the County’s jurisdiction, the City of Owen Sound is taking some actions that impact housing.

It is not clear, however, whether those actions are aligned in a cohesive vision or how they connect with the work of other tiers of government, community groups, or the private sector. In short, we don’t know whether what the City is doing is sufficient to address the issue. In the meantime, the City is relying on the County to let them know.

This same style of thinking is holding the City of Owen Sound back from taking meaningful action or a leadership role on other complex issues from the climate crisis to reconciliation and the lack of affordable housing.

Leadership does not mean doing everything. There is no way that one municipality could single-handedly solve a problem as wicked and complex as housing. Neither does leadership mean being ‘the boss’. The City cannot draw up the blueprint to the housing solution on its own or force other entities to comply.

Municipal government is like one gear in the wider community effort. They can’t just command the others to mesh their projects or get in line. And yet, the whole community from elected officials to private businesses needs to be in alignment to solve these issues.

The answer is for each entity to understand the issue and their place in a complex and coordinated response. Leadership, in this sense, is taking the responsibility for understanding our community’s needs and ensuring that they are met, in the City’s response and the responses of other entities.

Individual municipalities like Owen Sound can follow in the steps of Kincardine, engage with the local community to support these conversations, develop a local vision, and lay out a plan that clearly explains how this municipality will participate to address the lack of affordable housing in this city.

The City doesn’t have to build houses or become a landlord but it can figure out how zoning, development charges, and other policy options could build on and support the positive actions being taken by other entities. Investing in the work to align policies and design approaches in this way could offer high impacts without high fiscal investments. Having a cohesive and comprehensive plan would also let the City better advocate for the needs of our community with higher tiers of government, non-profits, and private developers. A plan would make it easy to answer both ‘what are we doing’ and ‘why’.

Without that vision, planning, or collaboration our city is just one isolated cog in a larger machine, happy to be spinning but unsure whether all our hard work is aligned with the other moving parts to propel the community in the right direction. Just doing something is not enough, we need a plan.
*The conversation at council can be viewed on the City website at the 2:10:00 mark on the recording

 Jon Farmer
Owen Sound


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